Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘So Great a Cloud of Witnesses’

All Saints Day
01 November 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

On the 29th July 1941 a Polish prisoner called Zigmunt Pilawski escaped from Auschwitz

In an act of appalling brutality and retribution, the Deputy Commander of Auschwitz decided that 10 prisoners would die to deter further escapes

The prisoners were lined up and the men chosen

When selected one of the prisoners was heard to cry “My wife! My children!

On hearing this a prisoner called Maximillian Kolbe volunteered to replace him.

He said to the Commandant

“I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place”

The Commandant agreed to his request

The men were then led away to the underground bunker where they were to be starved to death.

One of the prisoners, who worked as a janitor in the bunker, stated:

 “The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. As the man in charge of emptying the buckets of urine I always found them empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. [But] from the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. Once they had grown very weak however, prayers were only then whispered. At every inspection, when almost everyone was lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

One of the guards remarked:

“this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him…”

After two weeks, all the prisoners, except Kolbe had died due to dehydration and starvation.

Because the guards wanted the cell emptied, Kolbe was executed with a lethal injection of carbolic acid

He calmly accepted his death and his remains were unceremoniously cremated on 15 August

He was 47 years old

He was canonised II in 1982

And is one of ten 20th-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London

The story of Maximillian Kolbe is incredibly moving

His courage offers a rare glimpse of light in the face of extreme cruelty and is so appropriate for All Saints Day which falls to day

A day when we remember holy men and women in the Church, whom we hope to emulate in our own earthly lives

It also falls the day before All Souls Day

When we remember the dead and in particular the faithful departed who have gone before us, like Maximillian Kolbe

Apart from our Lord’s own suffering, there could not be a more appropriate story for this Sunday

It is Christ like and he is rightly numbered among the Saints

All Saints Day is important however, not just because it reminds us of those who have led saintly lives,

It is also important because those saintly lives are evidence of Christ himself

So often in Christianity we focus solely on the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ

This is wholly right and proper for the Son of God

But through the lives of the Saints, the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes real for us today

Through these lives, touched by Christ, Jesus becomes tangible for us all in the here and now

And through these lives, we have first-hand evidence of Jesus Christ in our own times

Just look at Maximillian Kolbe and you have living proof of the Lord in our midst

But this Sunday is not just about Saints, it is about us as well

In St Pauls Letter to the Hebrews (11: 40) he makes the remarkable claim that, without ordinary men and women like ourselves, the Saints would not be made perfect

At first blush this is a remarkable claim that Saints need us as much as we need them

However, it does bear closer inspection because the Saints are just not individuals who have reached extra-ordinary heights of holiness

Holiness is the property of all Christian people and is fully realised only when it is lived and shared with us all

Saints are part of the body of Christ and, with them, we are helped to reach our potential as Christians at the same time

No one could be anything but inspired to holiness by the story we have heard this morning

However, being saintly does not have to be in acts of great heroics like Maximillian Kolbe

It can be the simplest of acts or gestures

A small act of kindness, the bravery to speak out or bearing suffering with great fortitude as our Lord himself did when he was put to death on a cross

We have lost some dear members of our congregation in the past year all of whom exemplified Christ in their own ways and we remember them too

But we also remember those, throughout our society who have displayed saintliness in the midst of this pandemic

The smallest act or gesture such as, helping with the shopping, picking up a prescription, making a telephone call

Or those who are prepared to lay down their lives for others’

As they are about to do so again this winter

Just picture for a moment a doctor, nurse or care worker, like Fr Kolbe, in the midst of the dying

Through their earthly lives, they too make God’s presence known to us

They demonstrate, to our generation, that Christ walks amongst us and we give thanks for their lives today

But their deaths remind us that All Saints Day is also followed immediately by the feast of All Souls

When we remember our faithful departed

And, in a sense, the two Feast Days complement each other

The Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission (ARCIC) said about All Souls Day

“The believer’s pilgrimage of faith is lived out with the mutual support of all the people of God. In Christ the faithful, both living and departed, are bound together in prayer”

It reminds us that as a Christian community, we are not just a communion of the living but also a communion of the departed.

Whether living or departed, we pray together, we praise God together and we live out our faith together

Perhaps, like Kolbe, even sacrificing our lives for one another in this earthly realm

And one day we will all be in God’s Kingdom together, remembered and redeemed as the Body of Christ